Sitting cross-legged on a couch in his Upper East Side apartment, wearing the trademark white suit, navy tie and spotless two-tone spats, Tom Wolfe is about as far from a college keg party as one can be in these currently United States of America. But this 74-year-old chronicler of the zeitgeist did spend the past four years listening to wasted 20-year-olds. The result of this anthropological masochism is I Am Charlotte Simmons, a hulking, hilarious, exclamation-point-filled tale that is probably every suburban dad's worst nightmare.
The novel follows college frosh Charlotte Simmons from her small hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sex-obsessed campus of fictional DuPont University, where a college basketball player, a frat boy and a nerdy editor of the campus newspaper vie for her hand. Wolfe explained to WW why undergrads fascinated him so.
WW: You've written about astronauts (The Right Stuff), the '60s (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), and Wall Street in the '80s (Bonfire of the Vanities). What drew you to college life?
Tom Wolfe: The intersection of sex and status was what fascinated me about it. Even though we think we are being carried away by emotion, so much of sex is socially determined.
Can you give an example?
Back when I was a student at Washington and Lee in 1950, I took a class in which the professor had us go through this routine. He said, "OK, let's see if sexual behavior is socially determined. It's spring; the ewes are in heat this time of year. And the genital apparatus of a female sheep is very, very similar to that of a woman. Would you be willing, if I brought in a sheep, would you be willing to--in front of the class--have intercourse with it?"
Um, gross. How did people react?
Of course, everyone said no. And he said, "OK, you already proved to yourself two things. You do not find it acceptable to engage in bestiality, and you do not find it acceptable to have intercourse in front of your peers."
Aside from the fact that students still don't have sex publicly with sheep, has life changed that much since you were in college?
The big change, in my opinion, is the change in sexual mores. The other is the breakdown of formality--there used to be a formal barrier between teachers and students. That's now largely gone. Some things haven't changed at all, like levels of intoxication. That's always been severe.
You once told an interviewer you continued wearing the white suit because it annoyed people. What did the students make of it?
Incidentally, during these trips I didn't wear the suit: They had no idea who I was. I'd be at these fraternity parties until 4 or 5 in the morning--they'd look at me and think, well, he's too old to be Drug Enforcement Administration. So they figured I was harmless.
And all the while you were furiously cribbing notes.
Actually, I didn't take notes. I just listened.
And you could understand them?
At first no, but I caught on. What I call "fuck patois" was so universal that when I started using the language in the novel I had to stop and do a mini-essay to show that I'm aware of how people are using this word. Otherwise I might have been accused of trying to artificially spice up my book with naughty words, which wasn't the case.
Some people would say Sept. 11 changed everything, everyone's talking about the second Bush term, everyone's talking about terrorism, and you're writing about life on a college campus.
First of all, I started this before Sept. 11. But I did pause and say, you know, wait a minute. This is supposedly changing everything. But things pretty much returned to normal. I mean, real-estate prices are through the roof, which is a sign of absolute confidence that New York is safe. But also, I found on campuses the reaction to 9/11 was zero.
Yes. Unless they were from New York, it was just something that happened on TV.
A Man in Full earned you a National Book Award nomination but the scorn of John Updike, who called it entertainment, not literature. What do you say to that?
I'm trying to write a writer's equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. The first line of the doctor's oath, is "First, do no harm." And I think for the writers it would be "First, entertain." "Entertain" is a very simple word. I looked it up in the dictionary. Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly. Tolstoy understood this; Dostoevsky understood this. It's very recent that there's a premium put on making writing so difficult that only a charming aristocracy is capable of understanding it.
By Tom Wolfe(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 688 pages, $28.95)